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Tributes: Why ‘Wonder Woman’ Julie turned down a job with Robert Maxwell

PUBLISHED: 01:27 06 March 2019 | UPDATED: 18:19 06 March 2019

‘Her wonderful personality imprinted itself on people’ says Sean Robinson of ex-colleague Julie McCreadie   Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEY

‘Her wonderful personality imprinted itself on people’ says Sean Robinson of ex-colleague Julie McCreadie Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEY

Archant

Ipswich Town fan Julie McCreadie became the UK’s youngest female newspaper editor. She was a livewire who proposed in public on the London train, too

Julie McCreadie. ‘She was an incredible saleswoman as well as a talented and gifted journalist’   Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEYJulie McCreadie. ‘She was an incredible saleswoman as well as a talented and gifted journalist’ Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEY

I knew Julie McCreadie too little and for too short a time, but a story about her wowing the imposing (and pension fund-raiding) publishing baron Robert Maxwell filtered back to Suffolk. It was after she left Eastern Counties Newspapers and set her sights on London. Nice tale, but was it true or apocryphal?

Sally Burch knows.

“I first came across Julie when I worked at the East Anglian Daily Times and she was editor of the Suffolk Mercury series,” she says.

“Our paths didn’t cross much but she remembered me and when I moved to work in London she hunted me out, together with other former colleagues, and convinced us that our paths would be paved in gold if we joined her in South Kensington to launch a free newspaper.”

That was London Week.

“It was funded by someone who I never met but had bottomless pockets of money and who had been spellbound by Julie’s enthusiasm and dynamism.

“Sadly, it wasn’t to last; but such was her commitment to the cause she went to Robert Maxwell to see if he would take it on after the current funder finally decided he couldn’t finance it any longer – it just wasn’t financially viable.

“Quaking in her heels, she did her best selling technique on Robert Maxwell, who ended up saying he didn’t want the product but he wanted her on board with him.

From 2003 to 2006 Julie McCreadie studied for an MSc in information technology with the University of Liverpool. ‘She moved with the world, whereas a lot of people didn’t’   Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEYFrom 2003 to 2006 Julie McCreadie studied for an MSc in information technology with the University of Liverpool. ‘She moved with the world, whereas a lot of people didn’t’ Picture: COURTESY BOB CROWLEY

“His surprise can only be imagined when she turned his job offer down, instead protecting as many core staff as she could and convincing me to set up a publishing business with her.”

She met The Beatles

Julie was born in Chelmsford in October, 1946. Her father was a Scot; her mother an Essex girl. It’s thought they met at a dance.

Dad – a carpenter, and maths teacher at some point – was a good dancer and his daughter looked to have inherited those genes. Mum was a stalwart union supporter who once banned her husband from crossing a picket line.

It happened at Marconi in Chelmsford, understands Bob Crowley, Julie’s husband. “He was on the management side and her mum was on the shop floor.”

Julie went to Chelmsford County High School for Girls, left with some good exam results, and spent six months working at the passport office in London – “where she met The Beatles, before they were rich and famous. But after that her true vocation was journalism, and she made a great success of it.”

Why the media? “The passport office just wasn’t her. I think she’d indicated to one of her teachers, earlier, that she’d like to go into journalism, and she (the teacher) said that wasn’t for nice girls.”

Take two, then

Sean Robinson would become a long-time colleague and friend of Julie.

He started as a reporter on the Halstead Gazette (eight or so miles from Sudbury) in 1961. By the late 1960s he was on the Brentwood Gazette when the family business became part of the Essex Chronicle operation.

“So I was moved up to Chelmsford with the furniture – which is where I met Julie. She was always a bit of a bombshell – very lively. You had to run to keep up with her. She was a dedicated newspaper person. Absolutely.”

At some point the Chronicle looked to muscle in on Sean’s old stamping ground by launching the Halstead Advertiser. Julie became its editor and Sean, with his local knowledge and experience, went as a reporter.

It lasted about seven years, he thinks.

After returning to Chelmsford they later pitched up in Suffolk, separately to begin with, at Eastern Counties Newspapers – publisher of the East Anglian Daily Times, Evening Star and other publications.

As Suffolk Mercury series editor, Julie was in charge of relaunching eight paid-for weekly titles in 1982 – in a tabloid format with a very modern design. She dubbed them “the mighty Mercs”.

Former EADT editor Terry Hunt was sports editor on the Suffolk Mercury series in the early 1980s. He says: “I remember Julie as an inspiring boss, full of enthusiasm and always with a smile on her face.”

The Mercuries closed as a paid-for series in 1984 and were replaced by free titles. (In a master stroke, EADT editor Ken Rice transferred the Mercuries’ grass-roots community news into the EADT and it made an important contribution to the paper, seeing an unprecedented surge in sales for the rest of the decade.)

Sean Robinson remembers: “One of her great achievements was getting an interview with Sir Frederick Ashton, the great ballet choreographer (who lived in Eye).

“Apparently he rarely gave interviews, but up she went. People said ‘You’ll never get him.’ ‘Oh yes I will!’ she said.”

Part of the IT revolution

Julie stayed with Eastern Counties Newspapers a while longer – and made a sizeable contribution as the technological sea-change began to change the industry beyond recognition.

I think she was called “systems editor” – the key link as the ranks of compositors dwindled (they’d traditionally re-keyed journalists’ words) and more technology ended up in the hands of writers.

Julie was involved in deciding what journalists needed and making sure they had the training required.

“She was very much part of the computer revolution,” says Sean. “Julie was well in there when most people were terrified of it. She knew what an opportunity was, and took it over. She converted us all to it.”

We spent 30 years together

Once the technology had settled, Julie’s time with ECN came to an end and she turned her sights on the capital – working up the plan for London Week. The man behind it, says Bob, was Felix Grovit, founder of the Chequepoint foreign exchange business.

Bob’s got a picture on the wall of a front page. Daredevil Duchess rides high, it says, of Sarah Ferguson. And there are prayers for Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy kidnapped early in 1987 in Lebanon by Hezbollah militants.

That was the year Bob and Julie met – fellow commuters taking the train to London from East Anglia. She had a flat at Stoke Bridge Maltings in Ipswich, not far from the railway station; he lived at Little Horkesley, and would get on at Colchester.

It wasn’t long before Julie proposed – on the train, on February 29, 1988. Leap year. “And I said ‘No’! I phoned her a couple of days later and said ‘Look. If we’re going to get married, we ought to have dinner.’ And that was it. We spent 30 years together.”

Bob’s background was in the construction business. “We were almost completely opposite in everything we did, but we had a fantastic relationship.”

We need to know about this popping of the question…

“In the days of the proper buffet car, it was a social centre. I probably travelled with her – not talking to her, because I didn’t really know her – for six months. I caught her eye.”

Julie wasn’t in his commuters’ circle of friends, but they had “a nodding acquaintanceship. She thought I was a miserable git! I was going through a bit of a bad time and used to sit behind my paper and read.

“That’s why I think it was a great amusement when they decided on the 29th of February that she’d propose to me!”

Though they got together in 1988, they didn’t marry until 2000.

Their civil service took place at Westerfield House Hotel, on the edge of Ipswich in Humber Doucy Lane. The room was decorated with blue and white helium-filled balloons (they were committed Ipswich Town fans) and their cake was in the shape of a football pitch – with a giant Town logo in the middle.

Bob had bought a big Georgian terraced house in Norwich Road, so they lived there for a couple of years. Then they stayed with Julie’s mother at Clacton-on-Sea while they did up a 500-year-old timber-framed cottage overlooking the Walton Backwaters at Beaumont-cum-Moze, near Harwich.

Many a noisy commute

Let’s rewind to the late ’80s and pick up, again, where work took Julie.

Sally Burch: “Computerised page make-up systems had just started to turn the newspaper and magazine world on its head and Julie realised it would be lucrative business. And so began a successful new venture we ran together in the mid 1980s that included putting new technology into Richard Desmond’s magazines at Northern & Shell on London’s Docklands.

“Many happy and wine-drenched lunches followed and we became firm friends as well as business partners. There was many a noisy commute when trains either ran on time or terminated at Colchester, after yet another problem, and we ended up in the nearest pub with fellow commuters until we were able to get a train back to Ipswich.”

Bob says Richard Desmond dubbed Julie Wonder Woman, because she got things sorted.

A number of publishing ventures followed, including sporting magazines. Sometimes, Bob got involved. He remembers they produced magazines for shopping centres. The first was for the Buttermarket complex in Ipswich. It caused the printers to think twice as the magazines were an eye-catching irregular size – neither A4 nor A3.

There were also in-house magazines for associations, businesses and charities.

She moved with the world

From 1996, for eight years, Julie was web editor for the Thomson Foundation. It’s a charitable organisation that trains journalists in developing countries.

At the start of 2000 she also launched McCreadie Media Services. This London-based company produced websites and printed materials. She also trained journalists, in the UK and overseas, in basic journalism skills and website design and creation.

The focus was tweaked by the second half of the 2000s, reflecting the pace of technological change. There was more internet development consultancy, advising clients how to make their websites more effective through brand development, and boosting traffic growth and advertising revenue.

Julie was also an accredited Department of Trade and Industry adviser for the Government-backed Technology Means Business scheme. This helped smaller businesses make the best use of technology.

She was also a qualified NVQ trainer and assessor, and ran management workshops in the City of London and abroad – as a media trainer and consultant for the Thomson Foundation.

“Her real love was teaching people, which latterly, when she was teaching abroad, gave her a great sense of purpose. She just loved people,” says Bob.

Media training took her to countries such as Albania, Cameroon, Pakistan, Montenegro, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Bangladesh.

Bob would follow Julie to some of these places and they’d spend a couple of weeks or so exploring, once her work was done.

The couple also began a personal project: starting a library in part of South Africa. They bought a shipping container and filled it with 20,000 books, children’s clothes and furniture.

Did she take these overseas adventures in her stride? “Oh yes, absolutely. She was a bit of a force of nature.”

Bob talks about a note from a man at the Thomson Foundation, citing her greatest strength as being able to deal with people and build personal relationships.

Julie definitely wasn’t one for standing still. From 2003 to 2006 she studied for an MSc in information technology with the University of Liverpool.

“She moved with the world, whereas a lot of people didn’t,” says Sean Robinson.

It was essentially an online degree course. Fellow students were working in other countries, and in different time zones. It meant group discussions via email were often in the early hours.

Julie wrote on her LinkedIn page: “Luckily I had no camera on my computer system, so my classmates were saved from trying to hold serious discussions with me in my pyjamas.”

Bob says: “It was sometimes difficult for her, because she’d be in Sierra Leone or Cameroon for work, and would be trying to upload things. But she managed it. I was very proud of her. She was always keen to learn, and was a great researcher. She’d research things to the nth degree.”

Watching the ballet

The travelling eased off from about 2009, when Julie began to show signs of a developing illness that worsened steadily.

Bob looked after his wife at home in Essex, but last year it became clear that couldn’t carry on. She became ill, went into hospital last June and stayed a month.

The experts said home, the centuries-old house with its quirks and wonky corners, wasn’t the best place for someone with dementia.

They’d planned to move to Devon in any case. Bob has two daughters who have lived there for 30 years and he’d bought a new park home – Julie had liked the fact it was on one level. So the move was speeded up.

She went into a care home on July 19 last year. Bob visited every day.

Julie’s real love was ballet, he says – as an interest, though in her younger days she had danced in churches with a group in Chelmsford.

Just before she died, Bob bought his wife an anniversary DVD set of Royal Opera House performances. Julie was watching the ballet the day before she died.

A memorial service is being held in the church at Bovey Tracey, Devon, on March 8. Bob will spread her ashes on the waters of Cromarty Firth, in northern Scotland.

You could never say no to her

“She was a livewire. Live ‘wires’ – more than one,” says Sean Robinson. “Her wonderful personality imprinted itself on people.

“She never aged. She used to say ‘I’m 39’. And you believed it. A lovely lady. Good friend to me. I shall miss her very much.”

Julie was also very interested in animals. She, Bob and Sean went to Colchester Zoo last year, when she was in a wheelchair. “She was a great fan of ballet. She reckoned the sea lions danced for her,” says Sean.

Sally Burch, now a producer at BBC Radio Suffolk: “The thing about Julie is you could never say no to her. She was an incredible saleswoman as well as a talented and gifted journalist.

“Whether it was selling the idea of a free newspaper to the rich in London, convincing media mogul Richard Desmond that his business needed her to put one of the first page make-up systems into all his magazines at Northern & Shell or holding court on the Ipswich to Liverpool Street train, she was an irresistible force.

“Julie was loyal, enigmatic, and her smile radiated (across) the darkest room, and it was a privilege to share a small part of her life.”

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